Approximating Love

Mitchell stared at his iPhone, dumbfounded. He double-clicked the home button and swiped the screen to exit from Outlook, as if his frantic fingers could reach into the device and retrieve his email. But the message was already whirring through cyberspace, presently landing in Amanda’s inbox.

It was a quarter past seven in the evening and Mitchell’s mind was shot. For the last hour he’d combed through his inbox, responding to needy clients and bookmarking reasonable ones for the morning. Meetings had consumed his schedule: 10:00am to 12:30pm, 1:00pm to 2:30pm, 3:00pm to 5:00pm. By day’s end his email was swollen with over one hundred items: Questions, requests, observations, suggestions, deliverable updates, scheduling conflicts, even a swipe of passive aggression from a VP. By the time Hillbrand Investment Group’s fastidiously dressed squad of innovators had found their way to the elevator at 5:37pm (precisely 37 minutes longer than they were welcome), Mitchell breathed a sigh of relief and depocketed his phone, only to shrink in terror from the frenzy of activity on his lock screen. It was like a contagion laying dormant, waiting for its host to wake before striking.

“The meetings made me delirious.” That’s what he would tell Amanda. Or that he’d been thinking of his mother while typing. Or listening to a saccharine song. There were a thousand possible excuses, which comforted him. He couldn’t be the first hapless soul to make this mistake. How many zillions of emails fly to and fro between the networks of corporate America on a given day? This sort of thing happened. Amanda would understand. It would blow over. Not a big deal.

As the train squealed and whinnied, whisking its lifeless passengers under the East River, Mitchell reopened his iPhone to reread his mistake:

Amanda,

Thank you for putting this together. Agreed, we can huddle tomorrow to discuss. The others will have something to say too, as you can imagine.

Love,
Mitch 

Maybe it was a big deal, thought Mitchell while staring mindlessly at his iPhone; the Retina display was burning his glazed, inactive pupils. “There’s a difference between remembering and seeing,” was the epiphany that broke his somnambulism. In the abstract, “Love” was genial, a laughable mistake from a beleaguered colleague. On paper, “Love” was an invasion of space, perhaps even an incident of sexual harassment. Not that Amanda would interpret it that way. Mitchell, for all his flaws, wasn’t very flirtatious. He spoke regularly about his girlfriend and often mentioned her by name.

Bri! She would be Mitchell’s excuse. He imagined himself walking into the office the next day, gingerly approaching Amanda’s desk and speaking in a hushed voice:

Hey, I’m so sorry about last night’s email. Ridiculous, I know, and you probably think I’m some kind of freak but really, believe me, I have an explanation. You see, while I was composing that email to you, I was also texting my girlfriend, Bri. It must’ve been a brain-fart, an honest mistake, a –

“Fuckin’ move.” A group of passengers bulldozed through Mitchell with their forearms, forcing him onto the platform as they raced towards Atlantic Ave’s stairways. He scrambled back inside, wedged between a group of loud-talking, gum-smacking adolescents and a tall man with a skateboard. Mitchell realized his music was too loud; the plastic earbuds rippled the soft flesh of his inner ears like sticks on a loosely strung drum. He yanked out the white cords and bumped into one of the youth.

“I’m telling this bitch better watch his fuckin’ space.”

Mitchell sidled through a large Scandinavian family to an open seat. He mentally replayed his imagined scenario and frowned. He had worked with Amanda for nearly two years. She undoubtedly knew that Mitchell had a girlfriend: coworkers talk. But had Mitchell ever mentioned Bri’s name to Amanda? In fact, had Mitchell ever acknowledged Bri’s existence in Amanda’s company? He recalled a company offsite six months earlier when a group of them were playing Jenga and a colleague had alluded to “Mitchell’s girlfriend,” and how Mitchell had promptly steered the conversation into new territory. He remembered hoping that Amanda hadn’t been listening.

The prospect of articulating Bri’s existence to Amanda for the sole purpose of denying his feelings for Amanda was sickening. He clutched at his hairline, though it was his eyeballs that felt on fire. The train’s conductor was screaming at the squished passengers to stand clear of the closing doors, or perhaps he was speaking normally and the microphone was too close to his mouth. The train lurched forward. The Scandinavian patriarch, murmuring over a subway map, stumbled and crashed onto Mitchell’s toes with his mammoth heal.

Even if he mounted the courage to invoke Bri’s name, it was Amanda’s prerogative to not believe him. And why should she? The longer he thought about it, the more farfetched his supposed faux pas seemed. How does one confuse a work email with a personal text, no matter the time of day?

“This is Hoyt Schermerhorn, transfer for the C or G Trains,” roared the conductor. With ringing ears, Mitchell joined the stream of passengers treading up the leaky stairwell into the misty November dusk.

Mitchell reevaluated the situation as he lay in bed that night beside Bri, his girlfriend of two years with whom he’d recently moved in. The ‘Girlfriend Excuse’ would be reputable for anyone else. But he sensed Amanda would know better. His thoughts kept returning to a recent lunch. Was it the first time they’d shared a meal together, just the two of them? It was happenstance, of course. Mitchell had already been in the elevator when a mysterious arm prevented the door from closing.

“Room for one more?” she said with a mischievous smile that Mitchell had seen bamboozle clients, but seldom beheld directed at himself. It was noon on a slow-moving Friday. It was obvious they were both going out for lunch. It was evident that a meal together would be preferable to lugging plastic containers back to their solitary desks.

After their hourlong outing, Mitchell did not see Amanda any differently. Rather, his feelings had grown clearer, more tangible. He imagined Amanda seeing him walking to the elevator; maybe she had wanted to spend the afternoon with him. In any case, it seemed that LoveGate (as Mitchell now knew it) would not have occurred were it not for this fateful lunch – or so he told himself as he lay there staring into the black void of his ceiling, unaware of his unblinking eyes. He grabbed his iPhone and double-checked his email for a response from Amanda: radio silence. He squirmed in bed, turned his pillow over and kicked off his socks. He decided he wouldn’t tell Amanda he’d been thinking of Bri. Not only was this a lie, but perhaps worse, an aversion of a more fundamental truth. It wasn’t that he didn’t love Bri, but he also didn’t not love Amanda.

Mitchell laughed aloud at this admission. For months he had tried to decipher his feelings. This unsatisfying conclusion was the nearest he’d come to an accurate representation of his interiority. His final thought before sleep was one of terror: terror that he’d never get any closer.

***

The next morning Mitchell was awake for a few seconds – not long enough to fully recollect the messiness of his dilemma – when Amanda’s name seized his attention as he ritually scanned his email, yanking him out of his circadian rhythm:

Hi, teams

Missing work today due to a personal event. Apologies for any inconveniences.

Best,
Amanda

Bri stirred and yanked at their duvet. “A personal event.” Mitchell was now fully awake. He searched for another email from Amanda to his note; something like “Watch your typos, buddy” or even better, if she had anticipated his lie: “Did you confuse me for your girlfriend?” but there was nothing. The facts were lining up against him: Amanda was active on email and therefore must have seen his message. How could Mitchell’s inadvertent confession not be this ‘personal event’? Perhaps he should explain the situation to Amanda in a second email, or even call her? Would HR be summoning Mitchell into their lair for an explanation, or even a firing? Was loving Amanda a fireable offense? Did this mean he needed to break up with Bri?

These questions shadowed Mitchell from shower to subway; from office desk to client luncheon; from dreary afternoon phone calls to 11:30pm as he lay awake once more. The day had dragged on, agonizingly uneventful, like a horror movie without the fright. As he recommenced staring into the black void of ceiling, he felt even more unsure of himself, and of the world, than 24 hours before. Resigned to his fate, whatever it may be, he resolved to remain silent and go about his business. The next day passed without incident, then another, and then another. HR circulated a note on the fifth day to say Amanda would be out indefinitely due to an unspecified “personal event” and that “all staffing needs would be tended to accordingly.” She had disappeared, and Mitchell’s worries dissipated with each day.

Amanda, for the first time in years, was not part of Mitchell’s daily routine. No more work projects. No more knowing glances. No more feelings of dread and excitement. No more extended conversations in the break-room. Within a few months, Mitchell’s concern grew non-existent. When the memory of LoveGate resurfaced, he gently reproached himself for being so foolish as to question his job security. And despite his centripetal psychology (wherein a projected self-image excercised a sizable gravitational influence on everything in its orbit), Mitchell eventually accepted that his email probably wasn’t the only factor behind Amanda’s sudden disappearance. In all likelihood, corporate burnout had taken its toll. Even so, when considering the causality, Mitchell presumed that his admission had pushed Amanda over the edge; that she had been looking for an excuse to pack up and run; that she, too, felt something akin to love for Mitchell; that like him she respected the pathos of the Tragic, and that three years of shielded sentiment were enough to satisfy their shared trope.

Improved conditions notwithstanding, on those occasions when Mitchell reflected on the situation in its murky entirety,

Weeks and months passed. On those occasions when Mitchell reflected on LoveGate in its murkey entirety, he felt a twinge of aggravation with a hint of sadness. What hurt him was not that his feelings went unrequited; it was that she never said goodbye; that perhaps she hadn’t felt the need to.

***

One year and a few days after the incident, Mitchell saw Amanda at a cafe in Brooklyn Heights on a foggy Saturday morning. She was curled up in an armchair, huddled over a book and a cup of coffee. His first thought consisted of a memory in which Amanda confessed to him that she loves to spend her Saturday mornings like this. Here she was, a year later, holding fast to her ritual. She was still the woman he’d known. She was still the one he’d loved, or whom he remembered as loving.

When Amanda saw Mitchell, she smiled, then stood up and approached him – rather gingerly, he thought. They both remarked on how long it’d been. Mitchell apologized for “that email.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Amanda. She then explained how her parents had been in a serious car accident on that infamous night. She barely found time to email her colleagues the next morning, much less to review the previous day’s emails. She flew out to Chicago and took a few weeks off work to take care of them. She then found another job opportunity in Chicago, and had been living there ever since. She was in New York for a week to visit friends.

“Why didn’t you reach out?” asked Mitchell.

“To who?”

“To me. Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?”

“Why didn’t you reach out? You know, I was the one hurting.”

Mitchell looked at her, bamboozled, his mouth ajar like an oaf.

“I thought about you,” she added.

“You mean” – he paused, tapping his feet impatiently – “you mean you never read my email?”

“What email are you talking about?” Amanda sighed, visibility exhausted. This, thought Mitchell, was the first uncomfortable interaction between them. It was more than that. It was excruciating.

“Never mind.”

They spoke another few minutes, until Mitchell realized he had somewhere to go. He left the coffee shop hurriedly without looking back.

When he arrived home, Bri was awake, reading her iPad at the kitchen table. Mitchell stooped over, grabbed her face and kissed her passionately.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you too.”

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